It sounds like something that would at one time have been every British Catholic’s dream: The pope comes to England for a state visit; he is received by Her Majesty the Queen; he addresses members of Parliament in Westminster’s Great Hall, where St. Thomas More was tried four centuries earlier; and he celebrates a great public Mass at which John Henry Cardinal Newman is beatified.
But the upcoming papal visit in September has encountered problems from the start. The tragedy is that they are not problems rooted in the old anti-Catholicism of Britain’s past — which would have made a papal visit in the 18th, 19th, or even early 20th centuries a complete impossibility — but in the very modern tensions of the Britain of the 21st century.
The invitation to Pope Benedict XVI was initiated earlier this year by then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown — essentially for political reasons connected with boosting his international status (news of the plan first emerged while he was flying to America to meet President Barack Obama) and increasing his popularity with Catholics in his native Scotland (where Keith Patrick Cardinal O’Brien of Edinburgh had been deeply critical of government policy on issues of marriage and family).
There was then an embarrassing hiatus while Rome and the bishops’ conferences of England, Wales, and Scotland had to await further information. When that finally came, there were statements of general enthusiasm, but it was only too clear that there would be difficulties: The visit was planned for September, which allowed very little time for organization and planning; and there was an embarrassment about funding it all, because a state visit means use of taxpayers’ money.
Just as these tensions were being discussed, the much-hyped clergy sex-abuse story blazed its way across the world, with lurid material pumped out day after day: German bishops urged to resign, allegations of abuse in Italy, American tales from the 1980s revived alongside inaccurately reported and confused material — and, of course, the full hideous Irish disaster. As the stories were worked and re-worked, the headlines grew more dramatic, and the media adored it: The Times called for the pope to resign, as did a number of prominent columnists; there were endless letters and op-eds written by people who announced themselves as devout but now disillusioned Catholics; and organizations once deemed neutral on religious issues, such as the BBC, denounced papal statements and Church teachings at random.
Then came the ghastly Foreign Office memo. Here, we reached a nadir: It emerged in April that the Foreign Office staff organizing the state visit had produced a memo suggesting that the Holy Father be invited to open an abortion clinic and preside at a same-sex wedding. No, it wasn’t a joke — or, at least, it didn’t appear to be one. We had to watch while our Foreign Office at first tried to bluster things out, only to finally admit that something seriously wrong had occurred and issue an apology to the Holy See and a reprimand to the staff concerned.
News from the committee established by the bishops to organize the ecclesial side of the visit was not much better. Huge practical difficulties presented themselves: Quoting “health and safety regulations,” the bishops announced that numbers at papal events would have to be severely curtailed, and Britain’s Catholics were urged to remain at home and watch the proceedings on TV. We also learned that some of the planned venues had been turned down because they were deemed unsuitable, and rumors circulated that a proposed event for young Catholics would be limited to one — yes, one — young person from each parish. It all went over extremely poorly, especially as it coincided with an appeal for funds to finance the very events from which ordinary Mass-goers would be excluded.
All this, plus announcements of anti-papal demonstrations planned by the National Secular Society and all sorts of media-savvy atheists. And we still have the summer ahead, when silly-season stories can whip up plenty of anti-Catholic grudges.
It has all been a mess. But then, the whole history of the Church has been one long series of messes, and it has to be said that God seems to be more than capable of drawing great good out of things that His children begin very badly.
There is, in fact, huge enthusiasm for the papal visit among ordinary Catholics in Britain. People want to see him, they want to cheer him, they want a World Youth Day-type event for young people and a huge celebratory Mass for the beatification of Cardinal Newman. They don’t want to be told that they should watch the Holy Father on TV; we can all do that any time. We want to be with him when he comes to Britain.
It is a sentiment from the heart, echoing the emphatic statements and announcements and e-mails and conversations and indignation-sessions that have been the stuff of life among Britain’s Roman Catholics in recent weeks. We are well aware that modern Britain — unlike the nation that welcomed Pope John Paul II back in the 1980s — is now awash with nitpicking health-and-safety regulations, and that organizing great events could pose challenges. But we are also well aware that vast crowds routinely gather for football matches, pop festivals, and royal events.
We understand that the Church in our country is at a stage that could use a boost to morale, and a papal visit would provide just that. Mass attendance figures here in Britain have risen, not fallen, in recent months — if anything, the media headlines focusing on scandals seem to have given Catholics a renewed sense of the things that really matter, rather than making them reject the Church because of the sins of a few priests. There is an increasing recognition of tensions between government policies — on sex education, on care of the dying, on marriage — and the stance of the Church. Catholics feel a need to draw together. This is an excellent moment for a papal visit, and the mood is increasingly ripe for it to work well.
So what happens next? We must hope — and pray — for opportunities for ordinary Catholics in England to greet the pope — not least in the streets of London when he travels to and from Parliament. Catholics in Scotland have already ensured that there will be a great event there — a grand Mass at Bellahouston Park that will be packed out.
We need to be emphatic about seeing Benedict: We won’t be banned from the streets of our capital city, and we won’t settle for minimum possibilities for the young to be with him. Catholics in Britain have been to World Youth Days overseas, and to Rome, and they know what it can and should be like. As a students’ chaplain put it in the Catholic Herald recently:
We have to make the case that this is not just any public event. This is like nothing else on earth: not a rock concert or not a demonstration. Catholics would want to be squeezed together, hot and sweaty, if that’s what it takes to see the “sweet Christ on earth”, as St Catherine of Siena described the Roman Pontiff.
We are going to turn out for our pope, and our bishops must be encouraged to tackle the public authorities with that in mind — “to kick up a fuss, to overcome whatever obstacles could keep British Catholics from having direct contact with their spiritual Father.”
Join us in prayer. Storm heaven that all will be well. Ask for the intercession of our martyrs — Sts. John Fisher, Thomas More, Edmund Campion, Anne Line, Ralph Sherwin, Robert Southwell, Margaret Clitheroe… If some of these names are unfamiliar to you, it is because they died for the faith in the years when the Catholic Church was banned in the United Kingdom; when you could be hanged, drawn, and quartered for being a Catholic priest; when Mass was said secretly; when to be a Catholic was to be deemed a traitor. They persevered, and the Faith that they loved was passed on to us; and now we have parishes across the country, a great cathedral in Westminster, young people who are enthusiastic in their Faith — and a visit from the Holy Father himself, who will meet the queen at Holyrood Palace and address our legislators in London.
God can do great things. A papal visit that started with a series of muddles is nothing compared to 400 years of persecution. Pray with us, that the voice of Peter’s successor may be heard in our country. Pray for us, that this visit may exceed all expectations of success and bring much, much good to the United Kingdom. You won’t be praying alone.